Stephen Davison Bechtel (1900-1989) was a construction engineer and business executive whose firm, the Bechtel Corporation, concentrated on building oil pipelines and refineries, power plants, and factories.
Bechtel was interested in expanding the scope and the variety of his firm's operations, and he foresaw opportunity and profit in California's booming oil industry. He persuaded his father to take on the company's first oil pipeline job for Standard Oil of California in 1928; the line ran from the San Joaquin Valley to the Pacific. Bechtel became president of the Bechtel Company three years after his father's death in 1933. In 1937 he started up a new venture with a college friend, John McCone, the Bechtel-McCone Corporation. The firm specialized in engineering and building oil refineries and chemical plants.
Work in World War II
With the outbreak of World War II, both the Bechtel Company and Bechtel-McCone shifted their operations to meet defense demands. Bechtel was president and director of the California Shipbuilding Corporation, which built and ran a huge yard at Terminal Island in Los Angeles. He was also a vice president of the Marinship Corporation, which built a tanker shipyard at Sausalito. Together, the Bechtel shipyards furnished more than 460 freighters and 90 tankers during the war; Bechtel was the nation's third largest shipbuilder, behind Kaiser and Bethlehem.
Bechtel was also a member of the executive committee of Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases, which built the Navy's airfields in the Pacific. His firm took on more pipeline and refinery construction in the United States. Bechtel-McCone sponsored the building of the Birmingham Aircraft Modification Center in 1943 and later operated the plant for the Army Air Corps. The center modified almost 6, 000 planes for defense purposes and also manufactured trucks and airplane wings.
After World War II, Bechtel consolidated all his various domestic companies into the Bechtel Corporation, of which he was president. The firm carried out Bechtel's earlier goals of diversification and expansion into the energy field and also explored new geographic frontiers. It engineered and/or constructed oil pipelines and refineries, electric power plants, and chemical and industrial plants. Bechtel boasted the firm would build anything anywhere, whatever the size or specifications.
Although Bechtel remained knowledgeable about the fundamentals of construction work, his special role within the corporation was as planner and policymaker. He had the ability to see the need for a particular project and to analyze the way his firm could organize, develop, and construct it. The 718-mile pipeline through the Canadian Rockies was one such Bechtel project. In 1949 at a luncheon in Los Angeles, Bechtel and oil company executives were discussing newly discovered oil fields in Alberta. Recognizing the increased demand for oil in the Pacific Northwest and the need for a pipeline, Bechtel reportedly began drawing maps and plans on the tablecloth. He ordered studies on the market for oil, the possibilities of financing, and the technical demands of laying the pipeline. In 1953 a Bechtel affiliate, Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline Company, completed the $93 million venture.
An International Corporation
After World War II, the Bechtel Corporation was also active in the Mideast. In 1948, the firm began construction of the huge oil pipeline through Saudi Arabia to bring crude oil from the Persian Gulf to Sidon on the Mediterranean. The company also built a mammoth oil refinery at Aden, on the Red Sea, for Anglo-Iranian Oil.
The power division of the Bechtel Corporation was responsible for the major construction of electric power plants for public utilities in California, Utah, Florida, Arizona, and Hawaii. Bechtel also built thermoelectric power plants in Korea. The huge electric power plant at Joppa, Illinois, became a Bechtel project in 1953 after the previous contractor became involved in a series of labor disputes. Beginning in the 1960s Bechtel was part of the Nuclear Power Group to construct nuclear reactors for electric power plants, and he continued to explore new technologies, new energy needs, and resources.
Under Bechtel's leadership, the Bechtel Corporation, later the Bechtel Group, grew from a large California-based construction firm to a giant corporation with interests and affiliates around the world. The company's style, like that of Bechtel himself, was to take on a series of large, imaginative, separate projects rather than to concentrate on one engineering or manufacturing process. Bechtel received numerous honorary degrees, including an LL.D. from the University of California where he was once a student, and various awards in construction, engineering, and business. He was a member of the Business Advisory Council of the Commerce Department and served on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Highways. He sat on the boards of other large corporations and was active in educational organizations.
Bechtel was married in 1923 to Laura Adeline Peart, and the couple had two children. His daughter was a registered nurse and his son became chairman of the Bechtel Group, of which his father was senior director. Bechtel died at the age of 88 in March of 1989.
Further Reading on Stephen Davison Bechtel
There is no biography of Bechtel, but there are entries in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1947-1952) and in the Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders (1983). An extensive profile appeared in Fortune (November 1955).
Additional information of the Bechtel Group can be found in Laton Mc Cartney's Friends in High Places (1988) and Bechtel's obituary can be found in Time (March 27, 1989).